“Lord Jesus, thank you for dying for me,” says a bearded man in cut-off shorts standing atop a floodlit stage as hundreds of youths look on. “Lord Jesus, you can have my life.” Teenagers in Avenged Sevenfold shirts with bandannas wrapped around their faces bow their heads and pray together. And then the double-time kickdrum drops in, the guitars start chugging, and the mosh pit resumes. This is a scene from Creation North East in Pennsylvania, the biggest Christian music festival in the world.
Although obscured from much of the mainstream populace, the subculture of Christian music festivals draws millions of people together every year. Today’s bigger Christian music festivals – the Creation festivals, SonShine in Minnesota, LifeLight in South Dakota, the Spirit Festivals of the west coast – model themselves after a God-fearing rendition of a Bonnaroo or Coachella, with live performances and DJ sets, camping and food, but with the addition of large- scale prayer gatherings and seminars for religious learning. Over the past three decades, the phenomenon has played a central role in the propagation of contemporary American Christianity. In fact, the influence of Christian music festivals runs all the way up to the White House.
Mike Pence has been called many things. The Intercept has stated that the vice-president will be “The Most Powerful Christian Supremacist in US History”, while the New York Times once called him “The Perfect Conservative”. Regardless of whether either opinion is true, one major aspect of his identity does appear to be fact: Mike Pence found God at a Christian music festival in 1978. He said so himself in a 2010 interview with the Christian Broadcast Network: “Standing at a Christian music festival in Asbury, Kentucky, in the spring of 1978, I gave my life to Jesus Christ and that’s changed everything.”
If it were not for that moment, things may be very different today. Michael Richard Pence was born in 1959 in Indiana into a Catholic Democrat family. As a kid, he saved newspaper clippings of John F Kennedy, became a youth coordinator for the Democratic party, and even admitted voting for Jimmy Carter. In 1978, Pence was a freshman studying history at Hanover University, a small liberal-arts school in his native Indiana. He was questioning both his Catholic faith and his liberal tendencies at the time.
“I began to meet young men and women who talked about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” Pence told CBN of those salad days in Indiana. He recalled once on the floor of Congress that his interest in Christian fundamentalism was piqued by a shining gold cross necklace worn by his big brother at the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. “Remember, Mike,” said his friend. “You have to wear it in your heart before you wear it around your neck.”
Shortly afterwards, Pence trekked to Kentucky with a squad of believers to the Ichthus festival. Founded in 1970 by theologian Dr Bob Lyon and a group of seminary students as a reaction to Woodstock, Ichthus was on the crest of the first wave of Christian music festival culture, part of a phenomenon called the Jesus Movement. In recent memory, everyone from Twenty One Pilots to P.O.D to As I Lay Dying have played the event, but back in 1978, Ichthus was a very different kind of festival. “The hippy movement of the 60s was a college movement,” says Jon Robberson, who has been a Christian festival promoter for almost 30 years. “Some of those hippy kids found the secular movement to be empty. Those are the ones who drifted into Christian culture. They substituted the drug culture for Christ.”
It has been said that musical acts in the world of Christian music are watered-down surrogates of another, more popular mainstream equivalent. Performing at Ichthus that weekend back in 1978 were bands like Daniel Amos, a controversially progressive band that in 1978 were in the midst of retooling their sound from the Christian version of the Eagles to the Christian version of Talking Heads; Phil Keaggy, the Jesus-loving equivalent of prog-rock legends Yes; and Larry Norman, the born-again Bob Dylan who would play on the lawn of the White House for President Carter later that year.
Somewhere in that sacred haze, Pence dedicated his life to Jesus. The vice-president has never elaborated on the specifics of the moment that changed him at Ichthus – despite numerous attempts to get him on record – but if it’s anything like the Christian music festivals of today, it could have come during a mass baptism in a lake, during a daytime lecture by Christian philosophers, or amid a mid-set prayer break from one of the performing acts. Or, like many, more common music festival transformations, it could have come in a port-a-potty at 3am.
Although Pence may have come to know God that weekend in Kentucky, he also probably came to know the immense social capital that could be wrought as a politician from a population conditioned with a singular message that reached them at home, at school, in church, in their social lives and through media. Cognizant of this, the church began to harness the power of Christian festivals, reshaping the experience to instill their vision of God and Christianity. Although there were only a handful of large-scale events – fewer than 15 by the early 1980s – an unstoppable movement had begun.
Christian music festivals grew in the Reagan era, but they did so away from the mainstream spotlight and struggled to break through the stained-glass ceiling, even though mass-market evangelism was taking hold elsewhere. “Secular music was prejudiced against Christian music in the 80s,” says Robberson. “You had to leave the cross, reframe your lyrics, if you wanted to try to go secular.” At the time, crossing over was en vogue for savvy evangelists who saw mainstream acceptance as a path to greater glory.
In the 1990s, Christian music finally crossed over into pop. Scores of acts – from Amy Grant to Sixpence None the Richer, even P.O.D – had hits throughout the decade while baring varying degrees of overtly religious messaging. The Christian festival machine grew into a billion-dollar juggernaut, and events began sprouting up all over the world. Sales of Christian music albums reached 36m units in 1996, 44m in 2009. The festival had become a central rite of passage of the Christian American youth experience.
Concurrently, once opposed Christian communities such as Catholics and evangelicals coalesced politically into a unified, conservative religious right. Pence, gearing up for his second run at Congress, began referring to himself as an “evangelical Catholic” – a term some find to be problematic, maybe because it isn’t actually a real thing and he totally made it up. It turned out to be a masterclass of political marketing. Pence hedged his bets to appeal to a pan-Christian spectrum, and it propelled his political career. In this era of “big Christianity”, bands such as Lifehouse and Switchfoot further established Christian music as a cultural force and a moneymaker. Those behind the scenes would have been forgiven for thinking they had engineered one of the most effective and enduring social conditioning apparatuses in decades.
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